An unproduced feature script has a .3 percent chance of being made in Hollywood. Short film ideas, on the other hand, can be made for significantly less money, increasing their chances of being produced.
But writing contained short films takes a very specific skill set. With a limited production and narrative scope, knowing how to write a short film starts with carefully curating your ideas.
That said, let’s dive into 30 ways to brainstorm short film ideas you can actually produce.
1. Start with the ending first
This doesn’t seem like a how to write a short film tip, so much as a screenwriting lesson in general.
However, brainstorming short film ideas that have their endings baked in up front, will make your shooting script that much leaner. It’ll allow you to only focus on the scenes and sequences needed to achieve your desired ending.
Even if you want to flesh out certain parts later, having a barebones skeleton is great when a producer brings up budget.
2. Browse random Wikipedia articles
This one is easy, but extremely effective. Just go to Wikipedia, and click “Random Article” on the left sidebar.
Exactly like it sounds, you’ll be jumping from one article to another learning about everything from (not so well known) major events, to famous figures in history.
Sometimes just browsing Wikipedia is all it takes to come up with a short film idea.
3. Look in your own backyard
Whether you’re writing short films, a television pilot, or a feature film, you should always write what you know.
But this is even more applicable when it comes to tempering short film ideas, as you can shoot where you live, work, or if you’re a PA, both.
These are film locations that are easily accessible and cheap to use — or, better yet, free. In either case, you’ll need to use a film location form template to fully secure your location.
You’re probably closer than you think to a unique location full of narrative possibilities.
Look to 2014 Sundance Film Festival selection, Dig, as inspiration for your own short film ideas. Shot entirely in the director’s backyard, it’s a great example of how starting with an easy to access location can yield something truly original.
4. Set your short film on a college campus
Into dystopian sci-fi?
Lots of college campuses built in the mid-twentieth century feature cool, brutalist design — ideal short film ideas for college students who want big-budget looks in small-budget packages.
Just make sure you use our location tech scouting checklist so you don’t forget any signatures.
5. Research deserted places
How about horror?
Yes, there are creepy forests and cemeteries all over the country, but there are also abandoned hospitals, warehouses, and zoos. Ask around, make friends in the community, and research permit costs as you brainstorm movie ideas.
This will require some reverse-engineering as you begin to construct short film ideas around physical spaces. But the payoff could be surprisingly fun.
To reach out to a location scout for more short film ideas like this, go to ProductionBeast, search “Location Scouts,” and immediately you’ll find profiles you can message for advice.
6. Start with the prop
One of the last steps of writing a short film is creating a script breakdown that details all the props, costumes, and crew needed to make your production come to life. It’s the foundation for your budget, and not a bad place to start when brainstorming short film ideas.
By creating a list of props, characters, and stunts to start, you automatically make your short film script that much more producible.
You can make a script breakdown using our free script breakdown template, or just plug your script into StudioBinder, where you can tag and enter elements that will auto-generate into lists for you.
Learning how to write a short film is difficult, but breaking a draft down takes seconds in StudioBinder.
7. Write about a day in the life
Take a look inside you, or, more specifically, take a look behind you — at what you did yesterday.
Did you meet someone? Did something happen at work? Was it actually totally boring?
Writing short films is all about economy. There might not be enough for a feature in your day at the coffee shop, but it could be a vehicle for some charming short film topics.
8. Write the perfect character flaw
When coming up with your short film ideas, think about characters flaws for your protagonist. This can immediately make your short film interesting.
For example, just look at Miles from Sideways who completely embodies pessimism. In mostly every scene from Sideways, you’ll see Miles frustrated with life which is also extremely entertaining to watch.
What if you want to make your main character extremely selfish? Look no further than Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network. How about a character that doesn’t believe in himself? Take a look at Rocky Balboa or even Luke Skywalker.
How about a character that is power-hungry? Just look at Walter White from Breaking Bad.
If you want to make a good short film, make your lead character more interesting with character flaws.
Right off the bat, this will make your main character more interesting, especially as a short film.
9. Find an old family story
And going even farther back, there’s often rich material for short film ideas in your parents’ or grandparents’ histories.
Think about what makes you sit up and pay attention. Or, conversely, what disturbs you or prompts you to ask difficult questions. To quote mythologist and accidental screenplay guru Joseph Campbell: “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
Once you hit on something that resonates personally, test to see if it’s an actual story or just a vignette.
SHORT FILM IDEAS VS. VIGNETTE IDEAS
A vignette is a funny, curious, or even harrowing experience that lacks dramatic tension. A story involves stakes, goals, and forward movement.
There’s usually a central character who wants something and encounters obstacles to that want. It’s not rocket science, and after awhile it becomes easier to recognize the true potential of real-life events for writing short films.
10. Visualize your short film ideas as a storyboard
Have a great idea for short film sequence in your head? Maybe you shouldn’t ask yourself how to write a short film, but rather how to create a storyboard instead.
Creating a storyboard and building your short film ideas around one sequence can yield not only a great script, but something producible, as you can show your team of creatives exactly what you’re thinking.
You can either do this by hand, or use storyboard software like StudioBinder that’ll do the heavy-lifting for you..
Learn how to make a storyboard with StudioBinder
11. Create a moodboard
A mood board is basically a collage of visual references for a creative project.
It is used to communicate the “look and feel” of your project by showing visual inspirations. It is most commonly used to visualize a script, but you can use them to brainstorm too.
Use a mood board to make a collage of things that inspire you. Maybe you love turtles. Or perhaps there’s an album cover that inspires you. Find a free mood board template and insert items that inspire you. Good ideas will follow.
12. Pick a genre, then twist it
As you brainstorm movie concepts, keep in mind that short film ideas need a strong hook or clever twist to stand out. And twists can cost production anything.
By twist, I don’t necessarily mean a surprise ending (like Fight Club or Shutter Island). I mean an idea that’s born of combining two classic film genres and subverting the expectations of both.
For instance, here’s a short film of how someone took a drama about infidelity and elevated it with an inexpensive sci-fi angle.
There are a limited number of genres, of course, but there’s a huge variety of approaches to each — especially if you mix and match them. Starting with a specific category can focus you by filtering everything through the same lens. A thriller gives you the opportunity to use intrigue and suspense; a romantic comedy sets the stage for the inevitable meet-cute.
You get the idea!
13. Use irony to brainstorm movie ideas
Play the “what if” game when writing short films and see what happens when you add a character who seems out of place. Or an unpredictable event that throws a wrench in the gears of your story world.
Irony is key, here.
It’s the difference between short film ideas people remember and ones they forget the second the movie’s over.
14. Get inspired by other mediums
Books, songs, photography, live performance — art is built on the shoulders of previous art — and writing short films is no exception.
Try visiting a gallery or museum and see if any of the paintings spark short film ideas.
You might discover that the most abstract images provoke the clearest sense of what you want to write in your screenplay.
Poems are great places to find material for shorts; they tend to be brief, and they leave plenty of room for creative interpretation as you brainstorm movie concepts.
15. Find the essence of classic films
Quentin Tarantino is a master of uncovering lost cinematic treasure and using it as currency for his own scripts.
This should be the easiest homework for short film ideas ever: Watch some classic movies and reduce them to their essence.
Is there a core principle of that film noir or that Hollywood musical that you could adapt to a ten-minute telling? Or maybe there’s a single moment in that three-hour historical drama that grabbed you, but it wasn’t explored to its potential.
DON'T WORRY ABOUT BEING ORIGINAL (WITH A CAPITAL "O")
New short film ideas are all about putting fresh spins on old ideas. There are only so many plots, after all, but no one else will create the exact same story formula you will.
16. Be a news hound
Current events might not be pleasant, but they do tend to be rife with drama and tension. There are many ways to portray war, injustice, and political strife without hitting the nail too squarely on the head.
Again, narrow your focus to one specific person or one incident. Find the universal theme in the choice someone made, or didn’t make, and draft an outline based on that very simple situation.
Brainstorm movie ideas by scouring sites like Logform and take a deep-dive into some of the wildest stories of our times.
And don’t let the facts hang you up — the more you invent, the less you’ll have to worry about life rights or copyright issues.
17. Or re-work an old headline
If today’s news is too overwhelming, do a quick Google search for the headlines of yesteryear.
Limit your investigation to a particular subject or region. The easier it is to contain short film ideas within the limits of space and clock time (a minute, an hour, a day), the easier it’ll be for you to write a compelling screenplay.
18. Listen to the voices
When was the last time you were in a cafe and overheard a line too good to be true?
Except, of course, it was true. Stay glued to your notebook and write down those perfect snatches of dialogue. Then generate some character descriptions and see if they lead you to funny short film ideas.
Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan is particularly gifted at catching these accurate snippets of dialogue, especially when it comes to writing exposition in film.
19. Freewriting to find short film ideas
Sometimes if you’re stumped, it helps just to write. Writing longhand, “Stream of consciousness” style pages will give you unpredictable results. It is a way of capturing ideas that you didn’t know you had.
Author Julia Cameron calls these “Morning Pages” because she recommends writing three pages every morning. The idea here is consistency. The more you do it, the more ideas will come and the better they’ll be.
20. Transcribe the audio from a film you haven't seen
Thinking outside the box is crucial for catching ideas. Writing something, anything, is better than a blank page.
So find a film you haven’t watched yet on Netflix or YouTube. Drag to a scene with limited dialogue. Turn away from your TV and write the sounds you hear. To keep it ultra-producible, find a movie with limited locations.
Transcribing the sounds can unlock great ideas. At very least it will get you thinking about scene actions and writing them down.
For fun, compare what you wrote with the actual scene. It will probably be pretty different.
21. Start writing short films, arc first
Sometimes the form itself can lead to interesting short film ideas. Create a beat sheet with a clear emotional arc.
A tragedy will begin with the hero in a state of happiness or grace and end with an epic fall where he or she loses everything. A classic comedy will reverse this dynamic. Then there’s everything in between — but try focusing on a single trajectory with limited twists and turns.
By knowing where your story has to go, you can then strip away story beats that could inflate your budget.
22. Brainstorm movie ideas around life events
Weddings, funerals, anniversaries, birthdays — these are all dramatic events by their natures and have the added benefit of being limited in scope.
Choose a central character who’s experiencing one of these events and you might be on your way to some perfect short movie ideas.
23. Put yourself in the 1st AD's shoes
This relates to the points about using physical places as inspiration to brainstorm movie concepts.
See how much high-pressure drama you can squeeze out of two or three people trying to escape a contained space (bathroom, cellar, etc.).
Many 5 minute short film ideas have been triggered by these sorts of forced crisis situations — and they tend to make for inventive editing and cinematography techniques.
Read up on script breakdowns, so you can budget how much your script would cost.
24. Use a short film idea generator
Writing short films can be daunting, but a simple algorithm can help shake things up and delete your inner critic.
Try a Mad Libs-style randomizer like Plot Generator to see what comes up. It’s a bit like spinning a roulette wheel, but you might find a useful element or two in the suggestions.
It’s important to note that short film idea generators should only be a jumping off point, and not necessarily where you start writing short films.
It’s the glue you put between ideas that makes your work stand out.
25. Go way overboard
This is when a character takes extreme, or over-the-top action to the reach the goal.
An example of this would be Daniel from Mrs. Doubtfire who starts wearing a nanny’s outfit so that he can spend time with his children, which he otherwise would not have.
26. Ideate with a shot list builder
Just like storyboards, shot lists are easy ways to visualize your project before you type a single word. Thinking of camera set-ups before you’ve written anything may feel counter-intuitive.
However, you’ll know exactly what you need to accomplish. And what rentals you should pursue.
For example, maybe you just watch an Alejandro González Inarritu film and you noticed really unique camera angles. Why not recreate it?
In StudioBinder, you can easily generate a shot list without having an existing screenplay. Create a new shot list, add shots, and group them however you like. It’ll give your screenplay direction and make finding a DP a breeze.
27. Write a logline first
This seems like a no-brainer for writing short films, or any type of film, but having a great logline can fix most of the problems.
Try making a logline and running it by your inner circle. Because it’s only a sentence, it’s easy to try out a bunch without much hard labor.
Check out our guide on writing an exciting logline that can catch a producer’s attention.
28. Fish out of water story
This short film technique has been proven to work for many successful short films and feature films.
You would essentially take a person out of their normal environment and put them in a radically different one.
For example, take a look at Tarzan’s New York Adventure. The lead character (Johnny) travels to Brooklyn to rescue a boy from kidnappers.
29. Analyze a film character
Sometimes the best short film ideas are the simplest ones that focus on characters instead of extravagant scenarios.
Just take a look at Pixar's Storytelling Formula which focuses primarily on building compelling characters instead of overly-complicated sequences.
Or maybe even developing the most compelling antagonist.
30. Stop writing short film ideas and get out there
And connect with production freelancers to see what they’d like to shoot, light, sound mix, and color correct.
You can cut your budget in half, if your crew is working on your short film movie for free. The best way to attract high quality talent is by creating a project that would be perfect in your crew’s respective reels.
As your list of things to incorporate (an underwater sequence, Steampunk costumes, etc.) increases, your screenplay will be begin to take shape.
Finding crew like this is as easy as searching on Facebook or using dedicated job boards like ProductionBeast where you can immediately connect with film crew.
Ultimately, only you will know if your ideas for a film project are worth pursuing. But there are ways to be practical about your passion.
Not every concept is meant to be a movie — but if you feel strongly about yours, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. And don’t forget to give credit wherever it’s due with our free film credits template.
The “perfect” short film ideas will be the things you can execute better than anyone else. Stay true to your voice, because you can’t fake authenticity.
What’s your method to brainstorm movie ideas? Let us know in the comments below!
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